27 July 2011

Turd Buffing

Russell Wangersky’s column on Tuesday discussed some of Nalcor’s efforts to deal with criticism of the Muskrat Falls project. He notes the company letters to the editor and interviews efforts are respectful and low key but…
The problem is, the letter-writers keep coming at the issue from different directions, barbarians storming the Nalcor castle from the front and back, above and beneath, and that leaves the Nalcor responses — “Muskrat Falls is the best of the two major options we considered” — looking stilted and formulaic.
Not only that, but as in many bureaucracies, it takes a while for Nalcor to respond. 
When it answers a letter-writer five days after the letter appeared in the paper, that’s a major rear-guard action. 
It’s not helped by the fact that the responses are seamless but remarkably similar — a variety of people write or respond on Nalcor’s behalf, and magically, they all sound exactly the same. 
The mantra’s getting stale. 
It’s not always on point, either.
That pretty much sums it up.

If Nalcor is having a problem with its public communications – and they are – the problem isn’t with the people in the corporate communications shop.  The public relations gang at Nalcor are among the most professional bunch you will find anywhere.  Your humble e-scribbler has known some of them for years and has gotten to know the others by firing off e-mails to ask questions about a bunch of different Nalcor projects. They know their stuff.
The problem is higher up the corporate food chain.

Take, for example, the idea that Muskrat Falls will double the price of electricity in the province. Your humble e-scribbler reached that conclusion early on by taking what then-natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale said in an interview and doing a bit of simple math.

Her replacement called VOCM’s Open Line show on Tuesday to deny that, among other things. Shawn Skinner said simply that it wasn’t true.

And that was it.

He didn’t point to a brochure mailed out to every household.  Skinner didn’t point everyone to a website, nor did he say that anyone can find the rights of it somewhere else.

He just said that it wasn’t true.

Yep and the cheque’s in the mail, I’ll respect you in the morning, we never expropriated the Abitibi mill and I’m from Ottawa and I am here to help.

Take as another example the idea that Muskrat Falls is the lowest cost way of getting the electricity Nalcor says we will need within five years.  Never mind that the demand forecasts don’t say what they claim they say or that five years comes before Muskrat would come on the grid.


Let's just look at the lowest cost claim.  Kathy Dunderdale, Shawn Skinner, Ed Martin and Nalcor veep Gil Bennett all say the same thing.  They are on message.

But they don’t produce a single shred of evidence to back the claim.

They either didn’t look for the lowest cost option  or they don't have the information [they claim they have];  that is, the information [they have] contradicts their claims.

Those are the only two reasons for not releasing even the teensiest shred of evidence to support two essential bits of the Muskrat Falls story.  They are the essential bits, just to be clear, because they affect consumers directly and they are key bits of Nalcor’s rationale for building the project:  it’s the cheapest and it will help keep your electricity prices down.

The technical term in the public relations community for a project like Muskrat Falls is turd.

As in you cannot buff a turd.  No matter what you do the thing will still be dull, ugly and smelly.

If you want to know why this thing is being rammed ahead at full speed despite the lack of convincing evidence to support building the enormous debt load on taxpayers, just consider what Fortis chief executive Stan Marshall said about projects involving government:
“Governments … their agenda can be very, very  different than a private enterprise.”
Muskrat Falls is not about providing low cost electricity to Newfoundlanders.  It isn’t about having electricity to sell at a profit to mainlanders. Nor is it about thumbing our collective nose at Quebec.  And it certainly is not about replacing the thermal generating plant at Holyrood.

Muskrat Falls is the crassest of crass, cynical political ploys. 

Danny Williams desperately needed  to leave politics saying that he had succeeded where everyone else had failed.

Williams spent five years desperately, secretly, trying to get Hydro-Quebec to take an ownership stake in the project.

No matter what he offered, they didn’t want it.

He flipped his lid.

He tried Emera.

They thought the price was too steep. They didn’t trust him.

So Williams sweetened the pot:  Newfoundlanders would carry the full cost, plus a guaranteed profit no matter what.  Nova Scotia would get electricity at a big discount plus Emera could get a piece of the transmission pie inside Newfoundland.

Emera couldn’t refuse.

Williams left.

His chosen successor took over.  Williams’ legacy now became the Tory bid for re-election.  Tons of pork to spread around now and maybe in one more election. Think of it as a giant pile of dog crap turd in a paper bag on Confederation Building’s front steps and set to burst into flames a decade from now, by the time people stomped out the flames, Dunderdale and her crowd would be long pensioned off to Florida.

You can’t buff a turd, but if you stick to the message track you can force other people scrape it off their shoes long after you are gone.

- srbp -